Restoring Employee Health and Safety by Applying Occupational Health Psychology

Alumni Profile: Rebecca Brossoit ’15 PhD

Rebecca Brossoit '15 PhD
Rebecca Brossoit '15 PhD

Through experiencing and observing the significant impact that workplace environments can have on employee’s health and well-being, Rebecca Brossoit ’15 PhD became interested in resolving problems in demanding work settings. Stress at work, safety concerns, long hours, and varying schedules can all take a toll on our mental and physical health, also leading to more stress at home. As an assistant professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) in the Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology Program, Brossoit strives to improve the lives of employees at work and set them on a path to better health. Within the specialty of Occupational Health Psychology (OHP), she applies research to real-world settings, promoting positive change in the workplace.  

At UMass Amherst, Brossoit gained research experience in what is now the Somneuro Lab directed by Rebecca Spencer. For 3 ½ years she worked on a multitude of projects studying neural processing during sleep and how such processing affects daytime cognition. She completed an honors thesis through the Commonwealth Honors College entitled “The Effects of Saliency on Short-Term Memory Recall and Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation”.

Rebecca Spencer and Brossoit
Rebecca Spencer and Brossoit

“[Spencer] had this way of creating a research environment where her projects were really rigorous and really meaningful, but the environment was fun and collaborative, and that helped me believe that I could also work in a research type of job,” says Brossoit. “I had the opportunity to present research, apply for Grants, learn how to use polysomnography…I developed a fascination with sleep from working in Bekki's lab, and I've stayed fascinated with sleep ever since.”

She was also a TA in Susan Whitbourne’s Psychology of Aging class as well as a member of the Psi Chi Honor Society for whom Whitbourne was the faculty advisor. Whitbourne helped her develop leadership skills and confidence, driving her to join the executive board of PBS Psi Chi and earn grants for various projects.

Next Brossoit attended an I/O psychology program at Colorado State University (CSU), and completed a graduate training concentration in OHP, where she felt this work had a strong connection to her interests and values. She was able to use the sleep research skills she learned from Spencer and hit the ground running with her new advisor Tori L. Crain, who studied sleep in the context of I/O and of OHP. During graduate school, she worked on applied research projects and collaborated with companies whose employees included brewery workers, manufacturing workers, construction workers, and military personnel. She was very fulfilled by working in industries where safety was critical. She has since used her training to contribute to interventions aiming to improve employee health, which she plans to continue throughout her career.

For her master’s thesis she explored work experiences of nurses and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and how different aspects of their life at work influenced their sleep as well as job outcomes like job satisfaction. A significant finding was nurses and CNAs who had more flexibility and control over their schedules were also more likely to have better sleep outcomes, and in turn higher job satisfaction and lower intentions to quit. This showed evidence for flexible schedules having an influence on nurses’ sleep quality, and retention of health care workers.

Throughout her education, including a postdoc at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), she had the chance to perform applied research projects which looked at the impacts of sleep duration and sleep quality on safety related outcomes at work.

 Leslie Hammer, Tori Crain, and Brossoit
L-R: Leslie Hammer, Tori Crain, and Brossoit

During her postdoc, Brossoit was the lead analyst for the Oregon Military Employee Sleep and Health Study, a randomized controlled trial intervention led by Principal Investigator, Professor Leslie Hammer of OHSU (Brossoit’s postdoc advisor). The study involved training leaders in the National Guard how to be more supportive of service member’s healthy sleep patterns (Sleep Leadership) and their family lives (Family-Supportive Supervisor Behaviors). Leaders initiated various practices with their service members that encouraged healthy sleep habits such as emphasizing the importance of getting adequate sleep; recommending a quiet, dark, and cool sleep environment; encouraging naps when needed or catching up on sleep before a long mission; and asking employees how they were sleeping.

The service members in the intervention also had the opportunity to track their sleep with wristwatch devices called actigraphs, and then learn about their sleep patterns and set goals aimed at improving their sleep. Preliminary results indicate that the intervention did improve service members’ sleep and perceived support from supervisors, as well as other indicators of health, safety, and well-being.

Hannah Perkins Stark, Brossoit, and Destiny Castro
SNEWS Lab Members (L-R): Hannah Perkins Stark, Brossoit, and Destiny Castro

Currently at LSU, she directs the Sleep and Nature for Employee Well-Being and Success (SNEWS) Lab, a research team investigating employee sleep, how workplaces can support healthy sleep habits, and how adequate work-life balance can improve employee well-being. They also incorporate research in the area of environmental psychology, studying how nature exposure and the natural environment can restore human health and relieve stress.

When asked what supervisors can do to reduce stress put on employees, Brossoit says, “give employees more autonomy or more control at work—that could be control over their work schedule, having a say in the actual tasks they are doing, or autonomy in how they choose to complete their work. At a foundational level, people want autonomy, and it helps to have it in work settings.” Additionally, things like having social support from supervisors and co-workers, adequate pay and benefits, a safe work environment, and eliminating mistreatment or harassment in the workplace can make a big difference.

But what can employees do if they're having trouble with work-life balance or getting stressed at work? Brossoit recommends doing activities outside of work that facilitate the experience of recovery. This involves letting go of work matters and doing something you find relaxing or fun. Adjusting your environment to a comfortable place or going out in nature can also help you to restore a sense of calm.

Brossoit believes the excellent mentorship she received during her UMass, grad school, and post-doc education enabled her to reach career goals—highlighting its immense value to her. Today, Brossoit gives back by mentoring aspiring psychological scientists in her lab and teaching courses from Intro to Psychology to a PhD seminar on Occupational Health Psychology. She stays motivated by carrying out meaningful work that helps others in and out of the workplace.